The galley smells like decay. Flies circle dirty pots and pans, and the temperature on board is sweltering. While the bustle of Hong Kong continues outside, a crew of 46 men and women have been stuck for six months on a cruise ship anchored in the eastern harbor, near Kai Tak Cruise Terminal.
The New Imperial Star was used as a casino ship, shuttling a mostly Chinese clientele from eastern Hong Kong into international waters where gambling is legal. For two years, it picked up passengers from the Kowloon’s bustling Tsim Sha Tsui terminal, sailed at dusk out of the city’s territorial waters and returned to Hong Kong in the morning.
But on Oct. 6 2015, the ship was detained by Hong Kong’s Marine Department for failing inspections that the crew says could have been easily passed, had they been given money for maintenance. The ship has not moved since and the crew have been stuck on board, within sight of land but unwilling to leave.
The crew is mostly of Chinese, Burmese and Ukrainian nationality, and many of their employment contracts expired months ago. But they are worried if they leave the ship, and the city of Hong Kong, they will never get the back pay owed to them—which totals hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even leaving the ship for a day is difficult—it is anchored far enough away from shore that the crew needs to rent a barge to get there, which takes money they can’t spare.
Quartz boarded the ship today (April 9) at the invitation of Captain Valeriy Lyzhyn and some crew members, who are hoping media attention may help their plight.
The cabins are filthy, and the boat is unkempt. The luckier staff have a window to let in the air, others have none, and the metal of the ship draws in the heat from the hot Hong Kong days. When Quartz boarded, the temperature was 29 degrees Celsius (84 Fahrenheit) outside, but just five minutes sitting in the still, stuffy air inside the boat was enough for sweat to start dripping. Some staff have fallen ill, and not been offered proper medical care.
“Actually, there’s no need to switch this on,” said Captain Valeriy Lyzhyn as he showed Quartz the “chilled” vegetable storage area on the ship, where all that is being stored are a few dozen tomatoes, two carrots and turnips and a handful of other produce.
The ship’s casino is now just rows of abandoned slots and gaming tables.
The crew have been fending for themselves, taking turns on a hired boat to leave the ship every 14 days to buy food. The rations that the company that owns the boat sends through a middleman do not stretch to feed 46 mouths.
The ship’s galley is empty, the few provisions locked away by the captain, as the boat’s safety officer, who did not want to be named, showed Quartz:
“For the last six months, it’s like we’re in jail here,” the officer said.
For five months, the crew have not been paid any wages, which in total are estimated to range from several hundred thousand to a million US dollars.
The ship owner, Arising International, is a single-ship shell company registered in the British Virgin Islands, according to documents seen by Quartz. The individuals behind the company are a group of Hong Kong and Chinese investors, the captain and crew said. Hong Kong-registered Skywill Management Limited is the technical manager of the ship and Sun Junhao Limited, also registered in Hong Kong, is the crewing manager and the contractual party to many of the crew on board.
When contacted on the phone, Rick Mak Ka Yan, director of Skywill and the designated person ashore for New Imperial Star, hung up when asked about the ship. At Sun Junhao’s office in Kowloon’s Hung Hom neighborhood earlier this week, the company appeared to be in the midst of moving out.
Posters plastered on their office space said the company was the subject of legal action by the owner of their office building for unpaid rent. Their Hong Kong number has been disconnected.
The owner, through middlemen Skywill and Sun Junhao, has been making dozens of promises to pay over the past few months. While some payments were made in September and October, since November none of the crew has seen a dime. “We keep being told that once we pass the inspection we will set sail and be paid,” said one of the men on board, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal. The ship’s operational issues include problems with its radio communications equipment.
Originally the crew numbered 150. But some of the Chinese staff who were on board have been paid their wages and sent home, said Jason Lam, the Hong Kong representative of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), a global union of transport workers, who have been aiding the sailors.
Most of the crew now left on board do not speak English, and the crew from different countries cannot communicate with each other, making the situation even more anxious.
The problems may have been spotted much earlier had Hong Kong ratified the International Maritime Labor Convention, which stipulates the maximum period of overdue wages is 30 days.
“It’s a shame that there’s international regulation in place that could have picked up on such a situation much earlier, but ships calling in Hong Kong cannot be inspected against such laws as Hong Kong has yet to ratify” the treaty, said Reverend Stephen Miller at The Mission to Seafarers, a non-profit currently assisting the crew alongside the ITF. Both organizations are helping the crew get legal aid and take action against the owner.
Beijing’s crackdown on casino gambling boats, which were a common way to move money out of mainland China, has decimated the industry. “This isn’t the first time casino ships have been involved in something like this,” added Miller.
Several crew members recalled to Quartz that there were on average just under 100 customers everyday on board, but the number declined to around 30 on the last journey in August.
Now, the crew is hoping for drastic intervention. “We have had hopes for our ship owner and offered them a chance to compromise. But now we are just waiting for the ship to be arrested,” said Captain Lyzhyn, referring to a legal process in which the crew ask Hong Kong courts seize the ship. Once the ship is arrested, the owner will be given one to two weeks to pay late wages, otherwise the ship will be sold and the proceeds will be used to pay the crew.
Ei Ei San contributed additional reporting. The authors are Hong Kong-based journalists.